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HomenewsCultureReading, Writing, and Giving Back

Reading, Writing, and Giving Back

Kristal Bivona gets inspired by voluntary literacy projects

Non-governmental organizations have more opportunities to serve and support education than ever today as pressure increases on schools to look beyond public funding. Here are two nonprofits and a free literary magazine that are helping children and youth by promoting reading and writing outside of the classroom.

These inspirational organizations are all driven by the often underestimated fact that when given access, young people get excited about literacy.

Get Lit
On Saturday mornings, Get Lit Players aren’t drooling on their pillows or watching TV. They come from all over the city of Los Angeles to recite and write poetry. Many take several buses and commute for over an hour to share classic poems and recite their own creations at the Actor’s Gang in Culver City. These young poets have a spark. Not only do they recite their original poetry with fire in their eyes, but they recite poems from centuries past with a conviction that can leave an audience in tears. Get Lit brings out the poet, the reader, and the performer in each of the students.

One of the most impressive features of a Get Lit workshop is the culture that’s created. Students from different schools, grades, cultural backgrounds, and neighborhoods use the gift of gab to spill their guts to each other, tackling difficult personal topics such as sexuality, family problems, and gang violence. Everyone listens and supports their fellow poets with finger snapping, praise, and constructive criticism. Get Lit has created an environment of mutual respect and students know that they can focus on fine-tuning their poetic language and nailing delivery instead of worrying about being judged by their peers.

Get Lit serves schools and youth in the Los Angeles area. Founded and directed by Diane Luby Lane, it aims to give youth opportunities for developing a passion for literature, poetry, and language. They currently work with about 42 schools through their in-school program that provides standards-based curriculum for teachers to adopt.

Most recently, Get Lit has trained 18 language arts teachers in Los Angeles to use Get Lit curriculum in classrooms around the city. Teachers can order an advance copy of Get Lit, A 12-Week Course in Literacy (and Life) Through POETRY by Diane Luby Lane, a guide to teaching their standards based curriculum in the classroom. Arts evaluator professor James Catterall and and his team from the University of California, Los Angeles evaluated the Get Lit In-School Program. They followed four classes in Watts, Compton, South Central, and Long Beach area schools for a period of six months. They published the results of their findings, which conclude that the in-school curriculum is “immensely effective,” writing, “Get Lit promotes good thinking, thoughtful words, high student engagement, and improved student motivation. Students say they find a voice and learn about themselves through poetry.”

Over the next four months, over 2,500 students will study classic poetry and workshop their original spoken word response poems with their own teachers using the curriculum. In April, National Poetry Month, these students can participate in the citywide Classic Slam and compete for college scholarships and poetic supremacy.

For news and information about getting involved in Get Lit, visit

For an advance copy of the Get Lit curriculum, email [email protected].

First Book
It’s not news that the biggest hurdle in fostering literacy around the world is providing access to books (see Stephen Krashen’s “Reading for Pleasure” in Language Magazine, December 2011). However, First Book shares some shocking statistics about the reality of underserved children. For example, in some of America’s lowest-income neighborhoods, there is only one book for every 300 children. Books are not only missing in homes, but also in many pre-schools and after-school programs that serve low-income families. First Book aims to give these children the chance to grow into engaged and capable bookworms by making books more accessible to families, educators, and organizations.

To date, First Book has doled out over 85 million books in the U.S., reaching children and youth who otherwise wouldn’t own an age-appropriate book. First Book also recognizes the need for developing the mother tongues of children whose first language is not English by providing some bilingual and Spanish language titles. Books in Spanish also present opportunities for parents to read to their child in Spanish and feel more included in the development of their child’s reading skills.

First Book provides reduced-cost and free books for educators and programs that work with underserved students. The First Book Marketplace is an online store that offers quality literature and resources at accessible prices. They have also organized a clearinghouse where publishers can donate their products, called the First Book Book Bank, which are then distributed to students. Publishers are excited to take part in First Book’s Marketplace and Book Bank as they are reaching a large, untapped market. Even though the publishers earn much less here than they do through retail sales, First Book’s timing is perfect as the publishing industry is working hard to adapt to changing markets and technologies. Chandler Arnold, the executive director of the First Book Marketplace, told the New York Times: “Publishers have historically had to fight hard for their slice of the market segment. Here we’re making the entire market bigger. What we want to do is unabashedly change the way our country educates our hardest to reach children, and do it in a way that generates revenues for the publishing industry so that they take it up.”

First Book co-founder Kyle Zimmer is still amazed at the impact of her organization after two decades. “It’s genuinely inspiring to see how eager kids are to become readers,” Zimmer said. “I heard just last week from the principal of a school in Texas who came in to the school one morning at 6:45 a.m. to find one of her fourth-grade students reading on the front steps. He had a new book from First Book, and it was too chaotic to read quietly at home, so he came to school early to read.

“It’s hard knowing that a child’s need is so great, but hearing how hungry he is for the chance to read makes me want to work even harder to get him more books, and get books to the millions of kids just like him who are still waiting for us.”

Zimmer also hopes to continue expanding First Book’s reach internationally. First Book Canada has been connecting young readers to books for three years and there are plans to go beyond North America.

“We’ve been refining our model for a long time, and it’s ready for global expansion, so we’re actively hosting discussions to design our efforts in India. But, as always, we are being careful to develop our strategies in partnership with educators, organizations, and interested parties who are on the ground serving the children we care so deeply about,” Zimmer explained.

For news and more information about First Book, visit

Want to receive First Book books? Visit

Apiary Magazine
“Written by humans,” Apiary magazine brags. And it’s written by humans of all ages. Started by a group of young writers and poets in Philadelphia, Apiary sets out to unite the city through poetry. Co-founder and editor Lillian Dunn explained, “We’re not only creating a magazine that’s fun to read, we’re building community by letting very different people share their experiences with one another. Literature is amazing because this works on a national and a global level — you can read Tolstoy, a dead guy from Russia, and be transformed by his ideas and moved by his characters’ predicaments. But by focusing on Philadelphia, we let our readers know — this writer, who is moving you to tears or making you laugh, might be the person next to you on the subway. We hope it makes our readers more curious about and empathetic towards their fellow Philadelphians. And finally, we hope it makes the case for Philly as a literary city — a town buzzing with artists of all ages, who care enough about their lives and those of their fellow human beings to write about them and write about them beautifully.”

Apiary 3, released in 2011, is the third magazine and the first free issue. Having caught the attention of advertisers, including Philadelphia based M.F.A. programs, the editors of Apiary were able to cover the cost of publishing and distributing the magazine. Apiary is now a service to the city, giving authors a platform for publication, fostering a local literary community and sharing it at no cost to readers. With a print readership of about 2,000 and an online following of over 1,000, Apiary is reaching across Philly one poem at a time.

One important initiative for Apiary is providing a venue for young poets’ writing. Their youngest author was eight years old at the time of publication. “We have to work smart to get youth submissions into Apiary. Sending out e-mails to overworked classroom teachers doesn’t cut it,” Dunn said. “We’ve found the most efficient way to reach engaged kids and teachers is to partner with larger organizations — the excellent Philadelphia Writing Project, for example. They are already working with teachers who make creative writing a strong part of their curriculum. We also work with youth writing workshops at cultural organizations.”

Dealing only with local authors and workshops, word of mouth becomes a key part of earning more readers, but also discovering talent. “A lot of our home-runs — the excellent pieces that make adults say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know kids could write like that!’ are acquired by word of mouth, by talking to someone who says, ‘I know this kid who is a stellar writer, and they really could use a place to publish their work,’” Dunn explained.

To read Apiary 3 online, visit

Tips for Teachers
Diane Lane offers the following advice on creating a comfortable atmosphere for a creative writing workshop:
“If you are a teacher with an established classroom, it’s nice to rearrange all the chairs for that day; someone sits in a new spot. Suddenly it really does open you up to experience the class differently. I find that kids like to share more than you would think, but they have to feel it’s a safe space so it has to be led by a teacher that really respects his or her students. Maybe a teacher could start by sharing something personal all about him or herself. The teacher could say, ‘Anything that goes down in this room has to remain in this room or you will be asked to leave the class, but we’re really going to share and we’re really going to learn to trust each other and come together as this special unit.’ Maybe they can name the unit something special so it feels like something different than the normal English class.”

Kyle Zimmer on getting more resources for literacy in the classroom:

“I do have one major tip for teachers serving children in need – please sign up with First Book so that we can help provide you with an ongoing supply of quality books. You can sign up online — it only takes a few minutes.”

Lillian Dunn on weaving creative writing into class:

“Let it be a daily thing. Just read a poem out loud every day, even if you don’t analyze it. Let a kid share his or her poem every day. Ten minutes a day can create a lot of writers. Don’t spend an hour at the beginning of a workshop taking apart a poem, analyzing it word by word, as many lesson plans call for. Instead, ask students to find phrases that resonate with them, interest them, and ask why. At the beginning of an exercise, it helps to be very structured. Not structured in a Mad Libs way, but give concrete parameters — three sounds, three smells, three sights. Then, once there’s something on the paper, turn them loose.”

Kristal Bivona is assistant editor at Language Magazine.


Aishah Allah Interview and her poem “Confetti”

Confetti by Aishah Allah, Get Lit

Confetti makes me sad
Colorful yet broken
I wish confetti were more like puzzle pieces
Easy to be put back together and perfect if no pieces are missing
But we can never be put back
Ripped down to shreds, living with regret, messy
Confetti makes me sad shooting in the air with flying colors at special occasions
But what happens when it’s over?
Stepped on, swept up, back to where you came from
Each individual piece scattered on the floor reminds me of my own brokenness
My confusions, my regrets
My life like these tiny pieces of paper will never be perfect
They say we’re all together in being alone
But they’ll say anything to make you feel like you belong
If you could talk what would you say?
If you had a head, would it hang low or be held high?
If you could grow up what would you aspire to be?
Because I see so much of you in me
You are not just a one-night stand
Or an explosion to get reaction only to be forgotten
You had potential
You could have been a card for a sick grandmother lying in her deathbed
A love letter from a lonely soldier to his wife and six kids
A paper airplane for a cancer patient
Song lyrics for a suicidal teen on the verge of forever
You could have been sheet of paper
But you let them decide
And they said you look better in bits
So they ripped and ripped and ripped
Waiting for your refusal but you were silent
Confetti you were silenced
But now that you are broken, don’t let the wind push you around
Plant your pieces on the ground
Make magic of your smithereens
Let them know you were once a tree
Because your branches are still branches to me
My earth quakes when you fall to the ground
Pick yourself up when no ones around
Force your pieces into a smile
Like you have inspired me
I am the person you didn’t get to be
So I’ll walk around with an a.k.a and a nametag that says, “confetti is my name”
And I will wear it proudly
Oh! I will wear it with no shame
C-O-N-F-E-T-T-I, confetti

Ode to a Comma by Tepi Ennis, Apiary

Of minute ink flourishes
First stroked by austere authors’ fingers
Only the imprint of meticulous love
Remains upon pale leaves of skin
And the fingerprints of those before me
Who did not try, as I do now

For you I worship
You who could topple the mightiest of men
So seemingly insignificant is
Your ink-black body, cradled
between bones of ancient trees
Not of creation, will or whim
Sprung from necessity’s womb
Worth every touch
Of the pen from which you fall
Sugar in afternoon tea, drips assembled
When books are shelved
Left among pages, you are momentarily forgotten

In the intermittent silence
Rests recognition
Of your presence, a comfort
In the fog of language that rolls over my aching

Loyally standing vigil
Despite masters’ neglect
And I fear I have
Left you unwritten
far too many times before

The Moon by Eboni, Apiary’s youngest poet

The moon is a bouncy ball
That bounced all the way to the sky
And never came back

The Tree by Stephanie Sutton, Apiary

Windows and doors suggest you come into
The mushrooming streams of leaves
Settled in the way of being.
The emerald tendrils beckon to tickle your cheek.
The stems of this house are lonely,
The lazy invitation is alluring, distressing.
I imagine a twilight-filled dance party,
A twisting and turning tirade
Of romances underneath the branches,
Of welcoming.

Language Magazine
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